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‘Perfume from Provence’ by Winifred Fortescue ****

I have been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in France since I was a child, and have always been drawn to memoirs of those who have swapped their busy lives for a slower existence in the beautiful country. Lady Winifred Fortescue’s Perfume from Provence had been high on my rather large memoirs list for quite some time, before I caved and ordered a secondhand copy; reading it on a warm afternoon was bliss when I was unable to travel myself.

In the early 1930s, alongside her husband Sir John Fortescue, Winifred left her home in Hertfordshire, England, and ‘settled in Provence, in a small stone house amid olive groves’. Their new abode, named the Domaine, was very close to the world-famous perfume making town of Grasse. They made the large move partly for health reasons, but also because between the wars, France was a far more affordable country than England in which to live. As soon as the pair arrived, they were ‘bewitched, by the scenery, by their garden – an incredible terraced landscape of vines, wild flowers, roses and lavender – and above all by the charming, infuriating, warm-hearted and wily Provençals.’

When it was first published in 1935, Perfume from Provence was a bestseller. It rose to the top of the lists again when it was reissued by Black Swan in 1992. It is not difficult to see why. Although the book seems to be relatively forgotten nowadays, it presents a wonderfully slow, amusing, and warm slice of life, which transported me entirely from the crazed modern world. Fortescue’s prose is so vivid and sumptuous that I could almost feel the golden sun upon my skin, and hear the thousands of cicadas chirping in the fields. She writes: ‘Here there is a lovely leisure in all our doings. The sun shines so gloriously, the sky is so incredibly blue, and the scent of flowers, warmed by the sunshine, so drowsy and intoxicating that there is every inducement to be lazy and leisurely.’

From its very beginning, Fortescue writes with such ambiability, and a wonderful sense of humour. She tells us about the motley crew of workmen who are extending their small house: ‘Hardly a day passed without a visit from one or other of them: the electrician with a finger cut by wire; a mason with a smashed thumb; various blessés with casualties greater or less, all howling for “Madame” and tincture of iodine.’ The house also came with a rather beligerent gardener named Hilaire, who continuously ropes both Fortescues into helping him with garden tasks. To escape this, Sir John often feigns deafness. Many of the neighbours, too, shoehorn the Fortescues into assisting them – lending their car for a local wedding, or guilt-tripping them into buying up ‘several hundreds of logs’ in the heat of summer, as the seller insists that ‘wood was very scarce, and customers who were late with their commands would not get served at all.’

Perfume from Provence has been split into sections, all of which deal with one aspect of life in Provence, and range from ‘Building’ and ‘My Garden’, to ‘Marriage’ and ‘Housekeeping’. In each chapter, seemingly endless mishaps occur: a garden wall crumbling, and ruining a recently planted rose garden; a gentleman comically slipping on a banana skin on market day, and upending a ‘heap of oranges, some of which scatter under the stalls and are swiftly prigged by alert urchins, while other marketeers roller-skate on the remainder’; and the ‘gesticulating little creature’ of the local barber dropping all of his tools over the market square, and making ‘himself an amusing nuisance’ in the aftermath. There is so much evocative detail here about customs unique to Provence, and the lively book is full to the brim with memorable characters and encounters.

There are some lovely moments here too, many of which come from their rural neighbours. One of these, Monsieur Pierre, reflectively tells Fortescue: ‘He sweeps a brawny arm out towards the majesty of mountains rising above a sea of grey-green olive foliage, and asks me why people spend their lives striving to make money when Le Bon Dieu gives them all this beauty for nothing? Is not health, and the life of a peasant in the open air, better than riches and a dyspeptic stomach in a city? The world has grown too restless and discontented, and men have forgotten that peace and happiness can still be found in woods with birds and flowers and bees.’ One night, Fortescue relays that when went to be early one night, ‘… I lay luxuriously staring out of my windows at a mass of mountains gradually fading away into opalescent dusk…’.

I am always delighted when I pick up books of this kind, and am thrilled that I have discovered a new author to enjoy in Lady Winifred Fortescue. Her account of life in France is delightful, as ‘warm and witty’ as the book’s blurb promises. Fortescue lived in Provence until her death in 1951, and released more reflections of her beloved life there, which I am most looking forward to reading. Next for me will be Sunset House: More Perfume from Provence. There is so much to like in Perfume from Provence, and I have high hopes for the rest of Fortescue’s oeuvre. Of course, this volume has made me want to book a very long holiday in France, but until I can get there again, I will read the rest of her books with joy.

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One From the Archive: ‘One Writer’s Beginnings’ by Eudora Welty ****

First published in July 2018.

I very much enjoy Eudora Welty’s fiction, but know comparatively little about her childhood.  I read the wonderful What There Is To Say We Have Said a couple of years ago, which features much of the correspondence between Welty and another favourite author of mine, William Maxwell.  This autobiographical work, which is composed of a wealth of memories largely from Welty’s Mississippi childhood, works as a wonderful companion volume.

Of One Writer’s Beginnings, William Maxwell writes, ‘It is all wonderful…  The parts of the book that are about her family… are by turns hilarious and affecting.  They are a kind of present… from Miss Welty to her audience.’  Penelope Lively believes it to be a piece of ‘entrancing reading’, and Paul Binding writes in the New Statesman: ‘A writer for whom “genius” is for once a not inappropriate word…  A book of great sensitivity – as controlled and yet aspiring as a lyric poem.’

9780674639270In One Writer’s Beginnings, which was first published in 1984, Welty decided to tell her story in one ‘continuous thread of revelation’.  The book provides, says its blurb, ‘… an exploration of memory by one of America’s finest writers, whose many honours include the Pulitzer Prize, the American Book Award for Fiction, and the Gold Medal for the novel.’  This book consists of three essays – ‘Listening’, ‘Learning to See’, and ‘Finding a Voice’ – which have been transcribed from a set of three lectures which Welty gave at Harvard University in April 1983.

When ‘Listening’ begins, Welty’s words set the scene immediately: ‘In our house on North Congress Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where I was born, the oldest of three children, in 1909, we grew up to the striking of clocks.’  Throughout, Welty’s voice is lyrical, candid, and often quite moving.  She reveals her deep love of books, which was present even when she was a tiny child.  ‘I learned,’ she writes, ‘from the age of two or three that any room in our house, at any time of day, was there to read in, or be read to.’  Welty’s writing is particularly beautiful when she discusses her love of stories: ‘It had been startling and disappointing to me to find out that story books had been written by people, that books were not natural wonders, coming up of themselves like grass.  Yet regardless of where they came from, I cannot remember a time when I was not in love with them – with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself.  Still illiterate, I was ready for them, committed to all the reading I could give them.’

In a series of vignettes, Welty talks about stargazing, singing, childhood illness, learning the alphabet, religion, schooling, and the quirks of her in some ways unconventional parents, amongst other things.  The imagery which she conjures up is often lovely; for instance: ‘All children in those small-town, unhurried days had a vast inner life going on in the movies.  Whole families attended together in the evenings, at least once a week, and children were allowed to go without chaperone in the long summer afternoons – schoolmates with their best friends, pairs of little girls trotting on foot the short distance through the park to town under their Japanese parasols.’  When she discusses the travels which she went on with her family each summer, she writes of their positive effect upon her later writing: ‘I think now, in looking back on these summer trips – this one and a number later, made in the car and on the train – that another element in them must have been influencing my mind.  The trips were wholes unto themselves.  They were stories.  Not only in form, but their taking on direction, movement, development, change.  They changed something in my life: each trip made its particular revelation, though I could not have found words for it.  But with the passage of time, I could look back on them and see them bringing me news, discoveries, premonitions, promises – I still can; they still do.’

One Writer’s Beginnings spans Welty’s childhood, and includes comparatively brief reflections about her time at college, and the early days of her writing career.  She is insightful about the creation of her characters, and the knowledge which one must have as an author to create enough depth.  ‘Characters take on a life sometimes by luck,’ writes Welty, ‘but I suspect it is when you can write most entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page.’

One Writer’s Beginnings is a beautifully written celebration of stories, of Welty’s own, and of those which filled her girlhood.  I was pulled in immediately, transported to the Deep South in the early twentieth century.  This is a joyous account, filled with depth and insight.  Welty’s voice is utterly charming, and sometimes quite profound.  I shall close this review with one of the most wonderful quotes from the book: ‘The memory is a living thing – it too is in transit.  But during the moment, all that is remembered joins and lives – the old and the young, the past and the present, the living and the dead.’

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‘So I Have Thought of You: The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald’ ****

Penelope Fitzgerald has been one of my favourite authors since I discovered her and read three of her novels in quick succession in 2011. This collection of her letters, So I Have Thought of You, had been on my wishlist for an age before I picked up a copy from my local library. It has been described as ‘an unparalleled record of the life of this greatly admired writer’, which ‘give now the same pleasure they gave to those who first opened them’, and I cannot agree more.

So I Have Thought of You has been edited by Fitzgerald’s son-in-law, Terence Dooley, and also features a preface by A.S. Byatt. Byatt worked with Fitzgerald during the 1960s, at Westminster Tutors in London, which prepared students for the Oxbridge examinations. Byatt admits: ‘I didn’t know her very well. She was interesting to know, but not easy to get to know well.’ She describes Fitzgerald as ‘vague and self-effacing’ and ‘exacting’, and writes that her novels are ‘works of art’.

In Dooley’s own thorough introduction to the volume, he comments: ‘In letters she could say all she wanted to say, and couldn’t quite face to face. She did so in a way that was truthful, witty and persuasive, but above all focused on the person she was writing to. She intended to be entertaining, to offer consolation or to celebrate. She is vividly alive in these letters… Though she writes eloquently, she is unselfconscious and unguarded.’ He makes clear that this book is as comprehensive as was possible, but that Fitzgerald’s ‘fame came so late in life that there was no reason for anyone to keep her letters’. He also lets us know that many of Fitzgerald’s correspondents proved difficult to trace. There is ‘therefore a hole in the middle of this collection’, which omits large parts of her career, marriage, and children: ‘The years when, as Cervantes said to explain his own long silence, she was living her life: the years before she began to write.’ Fitzgerald’s output must have been astonishing, given that with all of these omissions, the collection is over 500 pages long!

The collection is split into two sections – ‘Family and Friends’, and ‘Writing’. Both of these are then organised by recipient. The letters featured begin in 1939, and stretch almost to Fitzgerald’s death in April 2000. Much of the correspondence is addressed to her daughters, Tina and Maria. Some of the letters fit neatly upon the back of a postcard, and others are far more lengthy. She writes about her friends and acquaintances, of writers she knows, a little of politics and domestic issues, and her own writing. She also gently chastises herself – and others – when she feels it is necessary. These letters are filled with humour, which is often rather dark and deprecating.

Of particular interest to me were the letters penned during the Second World War, when Fitzgerald was living in London. In September 1940, she tells her friend Hugh: ‘We have had a large oil-canister bomb which came through my bedroom window, so that I have a twisted piece of metal as a souvenir, but I was not there at the time and so although the window in the flat collapsed I did not.’ There are other, quite startling, occurrences which she recounts, too.

The whole is a delight to read, although I must admit that I preferred the section with warm letters penned to her family and friends, to those written to more professional contacts. Reading firsthand of the ways in which publishing changed over her lifetime, though, is nothing short of fascinating. These correspondences are, as one might expect, rather shorter than those to most of her family members and friends, but she writes to many people who work in a great deal of different roles – editors, publishers, other authors, researchers, those whom she called upon for various assistance, fellow members of the William Morris society, and even a letter to a fan who asked a question about The Gate of Angels.

Throughout, Fitzgerald is witty and intelligent. She captures so many amusing moments, and candidly mentions the many faux pas which she makes. In April 1965, she writes the following to her daughter Tina, who is on a French exchange: ‘I think you are facing up very bravely to the horrors of staying in a large French family – so much more efficiently than I did for instance – I was always in tears and then I got hungry in the middle of the night and went and got some cold potatoes out of the kitchen and the Italian cook was accused of stealing them.’

So I Have Thought of You does give much more of an understanding of what Fitzgerald was like, and how she lived; what mattered to her, and what did not. There are so many glimpses of her wonderful personality; for instance, she tells Tina in 1997: ‘The Guardian rang me up (they never ring me up usually) to ask for Five Wishes for the World for 1998. I couldn’t think of anything, except to abolish off-road motoring, and have those little packets of salt in crisps again. Of course they meant serious thoughts about world affairs, but the truth is, my horizons are shrinking.’

It is immediately obvious that Fitzgerald placed such care into her correspondence. There are heartfelt moments throughout, and concerns are both voiced and responded to. I very much enjoyed the way in which we only get to see Fitzgerald’s letters, and none of the replies; although some of the people and scenes she mentions are not given a wider context, it gives a more authentic picture of her, somehow.

Fitzgerald was a wonderful woman, and a generous correspondent, with a wicked sense of humour, who was game for anything; in 1995, her daughter purchases a farmhouse in rural Wales, and she looks forward to tramping up the hills ‘when spring comes’. This is a collection which I would highly recommend, but I would encourage everyone to pick up at least a couple of her novels before starting with this tome.

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Books for Wintertime

I have always been a seasonal reader to an extent – particularly, it must be said, when it comes to Christmas-themed books – but I feel that my reading choices have been aligned more with the seasons in the last tumultuous year. Connecting my reading with the natural world around me has given me a sense of calm whilst the world has reached such a point of crisis, and picking up a seasonally themed book has become rather a soothing task. With this in mind, I wanted to collect together eight books which I feel will be perfect picks for winter, and which I hope you will want to include in your own reading journeys.

These books are best enjoyed with a big mug of cocoa, a light dusting of snowfall outside your window, and a cosy blanket

1. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

‘Following the widely acclaimed and bestselling The Summer Book, here is a Winter Book collection of some of Tove Jansson’s best loved and most famous stories. Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith, and there are afterwords by Philip Pullman, Esther Freud and Frank Cottrell Boyce. The Winter Book features thirteen stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults, The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) along with seven of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’

2. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

‘Narnia… the land beyond the wardrobe door, a secret place frozen in eternal winter, a magical country waiting to be set free. Lucy is the first to find the secret of the wardrobe in the professor’s mysterious old house. At first her brothers and sister don’t believe her when she tells of her visit to the land of Narnia. But soon Edmund, then Peter and Susan step through the wardrobe themselves. In Narnia they find a country buried under the evil enchantment of the White Witch. When they meet the Lion Aslan, they realize they’ve been called to a great adventure and bravely join the battle to free Narnia from the Witch’s sinister spell.’

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

‘This epic tale about the effects of the Russian Revolution and its aftermath on a bourgeois family was not published in the Soviet Union until 1987. One of the results of its publication in the West was Pasternak’s complete rejection by Soviet authorities; when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was compelled to decline it. The book quickly became an international bestseller. Dr. Yury Zhivago, Pasternak’s alter ego, is a poet, philosopher, and physician whose life is disrupted by the war and by his love for Lara, the wife of a revolutionary. His artistic nature makes him vulnerable to the brutality and harshness of the Bolsheviks. The poems he writes constitute some of the most beautiful writing featured in the novel.’

4. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

‘The classic novel of despair, forbidden emotions, and sexual undercurrents set against the austere New England countryside Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a hired girl, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent. In one of American fiction’s finest and most intense narratives, Edith Wharton moves this ill-starred trio toward their tragic destinies. Different in both tone and theme from Wharton’s other works, Ethan Frome has become perhaps her most enduring and most widely read book.’

5. Winter Trees by Sylvia Plath (my own review)

I have read Sylvia Plath’s beautiful Winter Trees several times, and find fresh beauty on every reread. These poems were all written within the last nine months of her life. As always with poetry collections, I have collected together a few of my favourite excerpts or fragments from some of these stunning poems.

– From ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:
‘I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-flowers.
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.’

– From ‘By Candlelight’:
‘This is winter, this is night, small love -‘

– From ‘Lesbos’:
‘We should meet in another life, we should meet in air,
Me and you.’

– From ‘Three Women’:
‘What did my fingers do before they held him?
What did my heart do, with its love?’

6. The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland by Barbara Sjoholm (my own review)

‘I was incredibly excited to read Barbara Sjoholm’s The Palace of the Snow Queen, in which she spends several winters in the Arctic Circle. Sjoholm’s entire account is vivid and fascinating; she brings to light so many elements of life in the far north, always with the utmost sensitivity for those who live there.

Throughout, Sjoholm writes about the Sami, tourism, custom and tradition, the Icehotel in Sweden, and ways to travel around, amongst a plethora of other things. She strongly demonstrates just how quickly times change, and how some centuries-old traditions are being dropped in favour of the necessity of tourism.

Everything has been so well researched here, not only with regard to her own experiences, but with insight by others who have explored the region in years past. Her narrative voice is incredibly engaging, and I learnt so much from her account. It was the perfect tome to read over the Christmas period, and has extended my wanderlust even further. The Palace of the Snow Queen is undoubtedly one of the best travelogues which I have ever read, and is a sheer transportative joy to settle down with during long winters’ nights.’

7. Wintering: How I Learned to Flourish When Life Became Frozen by Katherine May

‘Wintering is a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves. Katherine May thoughtfully shows us how to come through these times with the wisdom of knowing that, like the seasons, our winters and summers are the ebb and flow of life.’

8. Wintering: A Season with Geese by Stephen Rutt (my full review can be found here)

‘The arrival of huge flocks of geese in the UK is one of the most evocative and powerful harbingers of winter; a vast natural phenomenon to capture the imagination. So Stephen Rutt found when he moved to Dumfries in the autumn of 2018, coinciding with the migration of thousands of pink-footed geese who spend their winter in the Firth. Thus begins an extraordinary odyssey. From his new surroundings in the north to the wide open spaces of his childhood home in the south, Stephen traces the lives and habits of the most common species of goose in the UK and explores the place they have in our culture, our history and, occasionally, on our festive table. Wintering takes you on a vivid tour of the in-between landscapes the geese inhabit, celebrating the short days, varied weathers and long nights of the season during which we share our home with these large, startling, garrulous and cooperative birds.’

I hope you have enjoyed my seasonal recommendations throughout the year. Also, let me know if you have any seasonal reads to recommend!

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive’ by Stephanie Land ***

As far back as I can remember, I have always tried to read the book before I watch the adaptation. Sometimes, though, this just doesn’t happen – as in the case of Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land. The book has been somewhere on my to-read list since I heard about it, but I only picked up a copy after watching the excellent Netflix adaptation, ‘Maid’.

Maid is a memoir which details Land’s life as a struggling single mother, working long hours as a housekeeper in order to give her daughter some stability, and at the mercy of the often ridiculous grants and benefits in Washington state. Alongside her work, Land wrote; she noted down stories of the people she cleaned for, alongside her own experiences of welfare, from a perspective which was difficult to find elsewhere. This is an individual memoir, yes, but in writing about herself, Land also writes about so many voiceless people in the United States.

Maid is told in retrospect, written from a position of emotional and financial security. Land continually asserts that her incredibly hard work, and the many hoops which she had to jump through, were the only things which allowed her to leave her life of poverty behind. At the end of the memoir, we see her move to Missoula to attend a Fine Arts college, and to study Creative Writing. She had planned to do so just before she found out she was pregnant, at the age of twenty-eight, with her daughter, Mia, and had to give up her place.

Land escaped from a violent relationship with Mia’s father in 2008, when her daughter was just seven months old. The pair moved into several unsuitable homes in the town of Port Townsend, sometimes damp, and sometimes dirty, and had to learn to rely on a dizzying series of handouts from their local authority. At the outset, Land and Mia are moving from a temporary home in a rundown cabin, into transitional housing. Half of the residents are moving out of homeless shelters, and the other half have just been released from jail.

Able to work a certain number of hours per week, Land soon found a job as a housekeeper, earning barely anything by working for a series of people who ‘had financial cushions beneath them’. She also worked part-time as a landscaper for a family friend. However, nothing was set in stone, and no hours were guaranteed. Port Townsend, around two hours from state capital Seattle, is a small city which appeals to tourists; therefore, much of its employment is seasonal, and is often difficult to come by.

Land is incredibly frank and forthright from the outset. Her memoir begins: ‘My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.’ When she goes on to discuss her money troubles, and how exhausting the process of applying for welfare and proving your need is, she writes: ‘I had looked under every stone, peered through the window of every government assistance building, and joined the long lines of people who carried haphazard folders of paperwork to prove they didn’t have money. I was overwhelmed by how much work it took to prove I was poor.’ Later, she says: ‘I was on government assistance, having regular anxiety attacks, still unable to process much of the emotional abuse I’d just experienced or know the depths to which it had affected me. My life was at some sort of standstill in its new identity; in being consumed with motherhood, which I wasn’t sure I really even liked.’

Land is clear that she had very little support at this time; whilst she hears from her parents occasionally, she acknowledges very early on that they left her ’emotionally orphaned’ during her childhood. Her slip into poverty was something unseen, though: ‘… after one kid and a breakup, I was smack in the middle of a reality that I didn’t know how to get out of.’ She writes about the societal stigma attached to welfare, particularly the use of food stamps: ‘It felt like a weighted vest I couldn’t take off, or like someone had hidden cameras on me all the time… When people think of food stamps, they don’t envision someone like me: someone plain-faced and white. Someone like the girl they’d known in high school who’d been quiet but nice. Someone like a neighbor. Someone like them.’ She is humiliated throughout by no fault of her own when using these stamps in the supermarket, and also in other situations – for instance, when her mother and her husband fly over from France to help her move into the transitional accommodation, they expect her to pay for a dinner out for them. Land can barely afford the $10.59 which her own burger cost.

The author details the start of her relationship with Mia’s father, Jamie, and the way in which she moved into his trailer so quickly. She was wooed to do so by the copies of ‘Bukowski and Jean-Paul Sartre in a line of books above the table.’ She falls pregnant just four months into their relationship, and Jamie tries to force her to get an abortion. It is from this point that the relationship starts to become emotionally abusive, and later, physically. At this point, she reveals: ‘In spite of all my hopes for a different path, I softened in the days that followed and began to fall in love with motherhood, with the idea of me as a mother.’ As her confidence in motherhood, and her own ability, grows, she still questions whether she is a good enough mother, and whether she is making enough effort for Mia.

Land writes extensively about the particularly grants and programmes which she applied for, and the differences which these made to her life. She says: ‘We were expected to live off minimum wage, to work several jobs at varying hours, to afford basic needs while fighting for safe places to leave our children. Somehow nobody saw the work; they saw only the results of living a life that constantly crushed you with its impossibility.’ Land found no opportunities to lift herself out of poverty, or away from the welfare state which she was forced to rely on. She tells us: ‘There was no incentive or opportunity to save money. The system kept me locked down, scraping the bottom of the barrel, without a plan to climb out of it.’

The book includes a foreword written by Barbara Ehrenreich, an investigative journalist who worked undercover in low-paid jobs, including housekeeping, and then wrote about doing so. She writes that maid ‘is a dainty word, redolent of tea trays, starched uniforms, Downton Abbey. But in reality, the maid’s world is encrusted with grime and shit stains.’ She goes on to remark that although such workers are invaluable to the middle- and upper-classes, ‘they remain invisible – overlooked in our nation’s politics and policies, looked down upon at our front doors.’ A short critique of class prejudice follows, before she focuses on what Land reveals in her memoir. Ehrenreich comments: ‘When confronted with an obstacle, she figures out how to move forward. But the onslaught of obstacles sometimes reaches levels of overload. All that keeps her together is her bottomless love for her daughter, which is the clear bright light that illuminates the entire book.’

Maid is readable, but it is very matter-of-fact. Land has chosen to discuss a lot of often repetitive cleaning processes in detail, and I did tire of reading these after a while. However, this is an incredibly important and eye-opening memoir, which exposes the faulty welfare system, and the unreliable work which so many people have no choice but to use.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Letters from Tove’ by Tove Jansson *****

Tove Jansson is one of my all-time favourite authors, from her charming Moomin stories which I have adored from my earliest childhood, to her beautiful and assertive short stories. I had so looked forward to reading the edited collection, Letters from Tove, and although I did not receive a copy for Christmas (despite it being right at the top of my list!), I managed to reserve a copy from my local library.

Letters from Tove has been edited by Boel Westin – the author of a fantastic Jansson biography, which I reviewed here – and Helen Svensson, and is translated from the original Swedish by Sarah Death. This is the first time that the selected letters have been published in a single edition, along with commentary.

I wholeheartedly agree with Ali Smith – another of my absolute favourite authors – who writes: ‘It’s hard to describe the astonishing achievement of Jansson’s artistry’. I have loved every single piece of work of Jansson’s which I have read, and reading her letters, addressed to a number of varied recipients, proved a real privilege. In the introduction, Westin and Svensson write that Jansson ‘was a great correspondent, writing frequently and at length…’. They also comment about how important the letter is in Jansson’s fiction, from messages found in bottles in the Moomin books, to the epistolatory form which she sometimes used in her short stories.

Letters from Tove has been arranged chronologically by recipient. There are letters here to her friends, family, and lovers of both genders, spanning a vast period between 1933 and 1988. The collection includes letters written to her parents and brothers; the photographer Eva Konikoff, who was one of Jansson’s best friends; the director Vivica Bandler; the graphic artist Tuulikki Pietilä, with whom Jansson lived for many years; the translator Maya Vanni; and Jansson’s publisher, Åke Runnquist. Although every single year during this period has not been included, an exceptional portrait of a remarkable life is shown to us.

Given that this volume provides just an edited selection of Jansson’s letters, one can conclude that she was both prolific and patient – particularly given that every single letter she sent was written by hand! Added to this is the way in which Jansson responded to almost every single fan letter or question which she received, which amounted to almost 2,000 each year. Westin and Svensson estimate that Jansson would have answered around 92,000 such letters between 1954 – when the Moomins became a global success- and 2001, the year in which she died.

‘Jansson’s letters ‘tell us all about herself,’ write Westin and Svensson in their introduction. ‘They deal with love and friendship, loneliness and solidarity, and also with politics, art, literature and society. But a letter also documents a juncture in time, stops the clock an tells us about things that otherwise get forgotten or sink into the depths of memory.’ Whatever she writes about, or however the mood in these letters sits, Westin and Svensson say that ‘they rarely leave us unmoved’. The editors have included relatively thorough biographical and contextual information throughout.

The familial scenes which Jansson describes are lively, as are depictions of her extensive travels, and her studies before the Second World War. In one of the earliest letters, written to her ‘Beloved Ham’ – the affectionate name which she gave her mother – when she was an art student in Stockholm in 1933, Jansson says: ‘I am a part of you. More so than the boys… how can I care one jot about Sweden when you’re not here?… I’m coming home, and soon. I’m coming home, just the way I was when I left… it may well be that I can now understand you better, help you better, and painstakingly start to appreciate how lucky I am to have you and the rest.’ Even in these earliest letters, an alluring philosophical wisdom shines through.

Through reading her letters, I was swept into Jansson’s world. I was helped to understand, so acutely, what mattered to her, and the efforts she would go to for those she loved. As in her fiction, the writing in her letters is unsurprisingly rich, nuanced, and astonishingly beautiful. Jansson is searingly honest throughout, and we are given the ability to really see her grow as time goes on. Her letters are open and revealing, and are sometimes startlingly modern. There is much seriousness here, but a great deal of light and hope, too. Letters from Tove provided me with a great deal of joy; it felt like I was reading the words of a dear friend. I really love to read one-sided correspondence like this, and it is certainly a volume which I hope to come back to many more times in future.

I shall close this review with a quote from the volume, which really spoke to me. In 1941, in the midst of a discussion about the Second World War and the tumult which it created in her home of Finland, she writes to Eva Konikoff: ‘Strange that it will all just go on, we will paint, travel, love, grieve, collect money, buy things, grow old… whether we want to or not.’

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Non-Fiction November: ‘From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death’ by Caitlin Doughty ****

I will begin this review by pointing out that Caitlin Doughty’s rather niche work will not be for everyone. I thoroughly enjoyed her debut, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which collects together her memories and thoughts from working in a crematorium. Doughty has made her living as a mortician, and owns a funeral home in Los Angeles. She writes about such serious elements – the majority of which revolve around death – with a lot of snarky and sarcastic humour, and one cannot help but be entirely entranced by her stories and experiences. Her second book, From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find a Good Death also very much interested me as a reader.

She argues, in both of her books, that death is a topic which should be spoken about more, but is something which many in the Western world particularly shy away from. In From Here to Eternity, Doughty begins by signposting her fascination of our ‘pervasive terror of dead bodies’. She writes in her introduction: ‘One of the chief questions in my work has always been why my own culture is so squeamish around death… Our avoidance is self-defeating. By dodging the talk about our inevitable end, we put… our ability to mourn at risk.’

Her aim in this book was to visit different places around the world to see how other cultures are not scared of the process of death, but rather embrace it, and make it a part of their own living. She travels all over the world – from three locations in the United States, to Indonesia, Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Bolivia.

Early on, Doughty sets out that in the United States, death has become an incredibly big business since the advent of the twentieth century. Everything has long been associated with cost, and with upselling – a better graveyard plot, a more superior wood used for the coffin, many ‘extras’ sold by different funeral homes. She believes that we need to reform funeral practices in the West, moving permanently away from profit-oriented practices, to ones which ‘do more to include the family’. These family-focused death practices are common around the world, and it is this which she keeps coming back to. Doughty writes, with a great deal of sensitivity, about the ways in which confronting death can bring peace, particularly for those in Western cultures, where such an attitude is generally suppressed.

Some of the practices which Doughty writes about are rare for foreigners or tourists to be able to attend. Others have really embraced the onlooker, though. At a Torajan funeral in Indonesia, for instance, the body is ‘transferred in a replica of a traditional Torajan home. These houses, known as Tongkonan, resemble no residence you’ve ever seen, standing high on stilts with a roof that sweeps up to two points in the sky. This corpse, inside his mini-house, was carried atop the shoulders of thirty-five young men.’ A ‘death tourism industry’ has sprung up around the Torajan funeral, with visitors coming from far afield to watch.

Of course, Doughty attends a ‘Day of the Dead’ parade in Mexico, which was rather strangely inspired by James Bond. In Mexico, at the beginning of November, families invite their dead back to visit. Of one young man, who had passed away in the small city of Santa Fe de la Laguna, she writes: ‘He will continue to return as long as his family continues to show up, inviting him to come back among the living.’

On the other side of the world, at a Buddhist temple in Japan, technology has been used to enhance longstanding religious practices: ‘After the family keys in at the entrance,’ with a smart card, ‘the walls light up blue, except for one single Buddha shimmering white: no need to squint through names trying to find Mom – the white light will guide you straight to her.’ This white light leads to the ashes of a loved one, which can be kept in the temple for a long time. Also in Japan, a company called I-Can Corp has married together death and technology: ‘presents a Sims-like experience in which your ancestor’s virtual gravestone appears on screen in a green field. The user can, according to taste, light a virtual incense stick, place flowers, sprinkle water on the stone, and leave fruit and glasses of beer.’

Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of From Here to Eternity is the focus which Doughty places on the United States, and the way in which just a few individuals – for now, at least – are challenging the status quo. In Colorado, there is a single town which promotes the outdoor cremation, using a movable wooden pyre. In North Carolina, a group of medics and research scientists toe the line between ‘death-innovation and the deranged’, with a plan to “turn corpses into compost”, as the New York Times put it. Behind this is something called the ‘Urban Death Project’, an architectural blueprint for being able to compost human bodies in built-up urban areas, which have little – or no – space to bury their recent dead.

Throughout, Doughty poses many questions about how the individual would wish to be treated after their death, and the many options which are available to them – even in the reserved Western world. In Barcelona, for instance, stands an enormous funeral home which handles almost a quarter of all deaths in the city. They display dead ones behind glass, akin to something out of Snow White, which allows families to stay with them all day. A Spanish-style ‘viewing’ displays ‘a loved one in their coffin, surrounded by flowers, behind one large pane of glass, akin to a department store window.’ A Catalan-style viewing moves the open coffin into a glass display case in the centre of the room.

I haven’t read anything quite like From Here to Eternity before, but it reminded me somewhat of the rather funny Netflix travel series, ‘Dark Tourist’. The series, too, shows a Torajan funeral – rather squeamish to the Western viewer, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless. Throughout, Doughty’s prose is clear and informative, and one can see that she is both passionate about her subject, and keen to impart her wisdom. I must admit that I did find From Here to Eternity a little gross in places, as Doughty certainly does not shy away from discussing fluids and the like, but it is ultimately fascinating, and eye-opening.

This is a great volume to dip in and out of, and to learn from. Some of the rituals which Doughty writes about are really quite beautiful, and I for one feel more comfortable discussing death as a result of reading this. It is perhaps an odd volume to choose during a pandemic, but what Doughty writes here is important – particularly as we face death on such a large and upsetting global scale.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel’ by Lucinda Hawksley ****

Aside from being my favourite art movement, I have always been fascinated by those who began the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the muses who so inspired them. Lizzie Siddal is perhaps the most iconic of these, serving as the model for such well-known figures as Ophelia and Beatrice, with her pale skin and cascading auburn hair.

Even as a history nerd, I must admit that I’ve not picked up one of Lucinda Hawksley’s books before. This seems odd, considering that whilst looking through her oeuvre, I wrote down almost every single title on my sprawling TBR list. Hawksley’s books and areas of research really appeal to me, and after my extremely positive experience reading Lizzie Siddal: The Tragedy of a Pre-Raphaelite Supermodel, I am keen to pick up more of her work soon.

Lizzie Siddal, born Elizabeth Siddall in Southwark, London, worked first for a milliner, modelling different styles of hats for wealthy clients. She was ‘discovered’ by the Irish poet William Allingham, who found that she almost perfectly fitted the criteria for a model his friend, Walter Howell Deverell, was seeking for a painting. Deverell was ‘despairing of finding a woman without prominent curves; he had also hoped to find a red-haired model’ for his depiction of Shakespeare’s Viola.

At first, Siddal was flattered but sceptical of Deverell’s approach, and it took his kindly mother to finally convince her to accept. Her scepticism was wound up with the fact that during the 1840s, ‘modelling for an artist was perceived as being synonymous with prostitution’. Her introduction to modelling for the group of artists, however, was a pleasurable one, and throughout, she demonstrated her fervent respectability. She had a desperation to be accepted.

Siddal went on to become one of the most famous faces in Victorian Britain, sitting for the likes of John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the latter of whom she eventually married after a tumultuous relationship. As Hawksley puts it, this brought with it ‘nine years of emotional agony’. She writes of their nervous inclination, and the clash of their personalities: ‘… both were headstrong and wilful; they were also depressive; prone to wild mood swings… [They] had a tendency to addiction and shared a destructively jealous need to be the most important figure in their – or, indeed, any – relationship.’

At the point of her marriage to Rossetti, Siddal had an addiction to laudanum, and was suffering from a debilitating, and quite mysterious, illness. Her illness was misdiagnosed by specialists as consumption and curvature of the spine in her lifetime. As Hawksley notes, it ‘has long baffled medics and scholars’. It is thought that she may have suffered from an eating disorder, or that ‘she was simply “neurotic” – a vague description that can encompass myriad symptoms and mental illnesses.’ The majority of the symptoms which she manifested, including nausea, dizziness, and a constant cough, can indicate a laudanum addiction. After giving birth to a stillborn daughter, and suffering much heartache, Siddal eventually committed suicide at the age of 32.

Of course, the primary focus here is on Siddal. However, Hawksley gives a lot of valuable context about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and its aims. They wished, she writes, ‘to paint vibrantly coloured works that would mean something to the viewer, subjects that would provoke the imagination and cause discussion.’ The Pre-Raphaelites wanted to return to the artistic ideals which existed before Italian painter and artist of the High Renaissance period, Raphael (1483-1520), the point at which they believed art had “gone wrong”.

Throughout, Hawksley gives a real flavour for the Southwark which Siddal grew up in – highly crowded, with no access to clean running water. Her family, though, was an aspirational one, and she did not grow up in poverty exactly. Siddal exaggerated about her unbringing, leading everyone around her to believe that she grew up in an impoverished slum. This, Hawskley suggests, was a ploy to ‘make Rossetti feel the need to protect her. She preferred to be known as a romantically tragic figure rather than reveal the truth about her family’s shabby working-class respectability.’ Hawksley moves through Siddal’s life with care and sensitivity, and does not simply focus upon her as a muse; she also writes of Siddal’s own artistry, as she was a painter in her own right. Indeed, John Ruskin purchased her entire portfolio of work in 1855, after he became her mentor.

Lizzie Siddal is a thorough and highly readable account of what became an incredibly sad life, marred by tragedy. The research and primary sources have been meticulously examined, and extra information – which tends to give more context, or further explain a brief point Hawksley makes – is often provided in footnotes. Hawksley’s book is relatively slim for a biography, standing at just over 200 pages, but such good use has been made of the original sources, and the whole feels intricately woven. Lizzie Siddal moves along so well, and is an excellent example of historical biography, which I would highly recommend.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’, edited by Simon Garfield *****

I remember reading an article about A Notable Woman: The Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt when it was first released, and have had my eye out for a copy ever since. I ended up finding a gorgeous hardback edition on a remaindered books website, and read its 700 pages over the space of a few days.

I love reading journals; they convey an excellent social history. Jean Lucey Pratt’s are no exception. She began to keep a diary at the age of 15, and continued – in 45 exercise books purchased from Woolworths for sixpence each – until a few weeks before her death in 1986. The output is astonishing, and she wrote over a million words during her lifetime. Most of her journals were personal ones, which her family and friends were unaware of, but she also kept a specific journal during the Second World War. Pratt also contributed to the Mass Observation Project, which began in 1937, and aimed to capture everyday life in Britain.

Pratt was born in Wembley in 1909, and lived for most of her life in a small and ramshackle Buckinghamshire cottage, named Wee Cottage. She looked after her niece, Babs, for some years whilst the girl’s parents were stationed abroad, but largely lived alone, her only company her cats. Pratt had a fascinating life; she trained as an architect, worked as a publicist and journalist, and went on to run a small bookshop in a street in Slough. She specialised in cat books, and continued to send these out to customers for many years after her ‘retirement’. As Garfield notes in his introduction, ‘what she really wanted to do was write and garden and care for her cats.’

In her teenage years, Pratt touchingly addresses portions of her journal to her late mother. She laments over her father’s choice of new wife, in Ethel, a woman of whom she is suspicious from the outset. In 1925, Pratt sweetly kicks off with a list of her ‘beaus’, which have been written in a secret code. One gets a feel for her character, and for what matters the most to her, straight away. She is in touch with herself throughout.

Although Pratt hints at possible publication following her death, she makes it clear that at present, the journals are for her alone: ‘And why have I that feeling at the back of my mind that no one will ever read this? But if anyone does read this – if you ever do – Reader please be kind to me! I am only 16 at present, and just realising life and beginning to think for myself. It’s all very chilling in its strange newness.’ She is candid and honest, and rather frank regarding taboo subjects, like her sex life. She is a very modern woman. In 1927, for instance, she writes: ‘I don’t want to get married – not at least to the struggling domesticated life which seems to belong to every man I know.’ Later, in 1931, she comments: ‘Even to my socialistic mind I think it would be better to be married – more convenient, double rooms being usually cheaper than singles.’

From the earliest entries, too, her writing is gorgeous. In April 1925, on a trip to Torquay, Pratt reflects: ‘We came back along the coast… And I felt tired and sad and a little exhausted, but the level, smooth stretch of sea peeping between the graceful lines of the cliffs seemed to comfort the innermost recesses of my soul. And when we lost sight of it behind high hedgerows I ached for one more sight of it.’ There is a lot of humour in A Notable Woman, too; in 1926, for instance, she writes of a new pair of cream silk stockings that she ‘unfortunately wore them for tennis yesterday and made irrevocable ladders.’

She has all of the usual teenage worries, but discusses them in a manner which is full of wisdom. We really see her grow – and flourish – as time moves on. I loved the way in which she mixes social commentary with what is happening in her own life; this begins far before the Second World War period, which is comprehensively covered. Throughout, Pratt is philosophical; in 1933, she asks herself: ‘What is one to do when one seems possessed of ideas and ideals too big for one’s meagre capabilities?’

Until A Notable Woman was published, nobody had read Pratt’s journals. Their publication is a gift; I dare anyone to not be entirely charmed by Pratt, and her words. They are, as Garfield comments, ‘a revelation and a joy’. Garfield goes on to say that when friends would ask about Pratt’s writing style, he could think of nothing better than ‘Virginia Woolf meets Caitlin Moran’ – two authors whom I very much enjoy. Had I not already been intrigued by learning more about Pratt, this comment certainly would have made me pick up a copy of A Notable Woman.

I would love to read the rest of Pratt’s original journals; this edition contains only around a sixth of what Pratt penned. Her observations throughout are so clear, and I was fascinated to learn about what filled her days. I cannot recommend A Notable Woman highly enough; it is filled with the colourful, descriptive, vivid, and heartfelt reminiscences of a fascinating character, who lives her entire life with hope and warmth.

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Non-Fiction November: ‘The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading’ by Phyllis Rose ****

As many of my reviews proclaim, this particular book has been one I’ve wanted to read for years. I have had no luck tracking down Phyllis Rose’s The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading in three local library systems, and have never seen a copy in a new bookshop, so I decided to purchase a relatively inexpensive secondhand copy to settle down with – at last.

Rose has written a lot of non-fiction titles which interest me, and she also edits the Norton Book of Women’s Lives. Her reading career, she tells us early on, has been spent chasing tomes from different syllabuses. Here, however, she decided to embark on a project which was a little different, deciding to ‘read like an explorer’. She chose the New York Society Library, of which she is a member, and selected a shelf of fiction – authors LEQ to LES – which met her rather strict guidelines. She then read her way through it, in no particular order as she wished to give herself ‘complete freedom’. The Shelf details her experience.

Rose wanted to steer a course away from the usual ways in which readers find their next books; her intention here was to ‘read my way into the unknown – into the pathless wastes, into thin air, with no reviews, no bestseller lists, no college curricula, no National Book Awards or Pulitzer Prizes, no ads, no publicity, not even word of mouth to guide me.’ She goes on to say: ‘Let me, I thought, if only for a change, choose my reading almost blindly. Who knows what I will find?’

The guidelines which Rose set herself made it relatively difficult to locate a single shelf from which to read. She perused almost 200 of them before she found one which fit her criteria. On reflection, she notes: ‘Visually, the shelf I had focused on was a pleasing mix of old-style bindings, gold-stamped library-bound hardcovers, and modern books whose colorful jackets were wrapped in Mylar.’

As one would expect, what Rose found from her shelf was incredibly varied in topic and author. She selected her shelf based on a classic which she had never read but wanted to – Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (my review of which can be found here). Her project introduced her to books about French Canadian farmers, upper-class Austrians, and detectives working in California.

Rose reflects: ‘The first thing I learned from my experiment – aside from the weakness of my will or, by the same token, the strength of my impulse toward enjoyment – was that in the age of the Internet, it is very hard to stick with a book without consulting an outside source. Reading is more centrifugal than it used to be.’ She also notes that prefaces can irrevocably alter the reading experience; specifically for her, this revolves around Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which robbed her of any excitement, and added diverting, and sometimes unnecessary, comments to the reading experience.

One of the most interesting elements of The Shelf, aside from the general idea behind it, are the varied differences which Rose writes about between differing translations of the same book. During her project, she came to three versions of A Hero of Our Time, one of which she did not enjoy, and one of which thrilled her. Throughout, Rose wonders about and researches the authors and books on her shelf, many of which are new to her. She even strikes up a couple of friendships with contemporary women authors.

I really like the central idea in The Shelf, and it is one which I would love to personally replicate – although with only a local library branch at my disposal, I’m not sure I would come across an entire shelf which fully interested me. The chances of reading mainly bestsellers and popular fiction in a local library setting would, of course, be far higher than Rose encountered in her private library, which has been in existence in New York since 1754. Regardless, The Shelf was an incredibly enjoyable, and rather fresh experiment, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Rose’s crisp prose, and the curiosity which she displays at all times, balanced the whole wonderfully.